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Myths of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 135

Hammurabi came to the throne he had apparently to recognize the overlordship of the Elamite king or his royal son at Larsa. Although Sin-muballit had captured Isin, it was retaken, probably after the death of the Babylonian war-lord, by Rim-Sin, who succeeded his brother Warad-Sin, and for a time held sway in Lagash, Nippur, and Erech, as well as Larsa.

It was not until the thirty-first year of his reign that Hammurabi achieved ascendancy over his powerful rival. Having repulsed an Elamite raid, which was probably intended to destroy the growing power of Babylon, he "smote down Rim-Sin", whose power he reduced almost to vanishing point. For about twenty years afterwards that subdued monarch lived in comparative obscurity; then he led a force of allies against Hammurabi's son and successor, Samsu-iluna, who defeated him and put him to death, capturing, in the course of his campaign, the revolting cities of Emutbalum, Erech, and Isin. So was the last smouldering ember of Elamite power stamped out in Babylonia.

Hammurabi, statesman and general, is one of the great personalities of the ancient world. No more celebrated monarch ever held sway in Western Asia. He was proud of his military achievements, but preferred to be remembered as a servant of the gods, a just ruler, a father of his people, and "the shepherd that gives peace". In the epilogue to his code of laws he refers to "the burden of royalty", and declares that he "cut off the enemy" and "lorded it over the conquered" so that his subjects might have security. Indeed, his anxiety for their welfare was the most pronounced feature of his character. "I carried all the people of Sumer and Akkad in my bosom", he declared in his epilogue. "By my protection, I guided in peace its brothers. By my wisdom I provided for them." He set up his stele, on which the legal code was inscribed, so "that the great should not oppress the weak" and "to counsel the widow and orphan", and "to succour the injured.... The king that is gentle, king of the city, exalted am I."[278]

Hammurabi was no mere framer of laws but a practical administrator as well. He acted as supreme judge, and his subjects could appeal to him as the Romans could to Caesar. Nor was any case too trivial for his attention. The humblest man was assured that justice would be done if his grievance were laid before the king. Hammurabi was no respecter of persons, and treated alike all his subjects high and low. He punished corrupt judges, protected citizens against unjust governors, reviewed the transactions of moneylenders with determination to curb extortionate demands, and kept a watchful eye on the operations of taxgatherers.

There can be little doubt but that he won the hearts of his subjects, who enjoyed the blessings of just administration under a well-ordained political system. He must also have endeared himself to them as an exemplary exponent of religious tolerance. He respected the various deities in whom the various groups of people reposed their faith, restored despoiled temples, and re-endowed them with characteristic generosity. By so doing he not only afforded the pious full freedom and opportunity to perform their religious ordinances, but also promoted the material welfare of his subjects, for the temples were centres of culture and the priests were the teachers of the young. Excavators have discovered at Sippar traces of a school which dates from the Hammurabi Dynasty. Pupils learned to read and write, and received instruction in arithmetic and mensuration. They copied historical tablets, practised the art of composition, and studied geography.

Although there were many professional scribes, a not inconsiderable proportion of the people of both sexes were able to write private and business letters. Sons wrote from a distance to their fathers when in need of money then as now, and with the same air of undeserved martyrdom and subdued but confident appeal. One son indited a long complaint regarding the quality of the food he was given in his lodgings. Lovers appealed to forgetful ladies, showing great concern regarding their health. "Inform me how it fares with thee," one wrote four thousand years ago. "I went up to Babylon so that I might meet thee, but did not, and was much depressed. Let me know why thou didst go away so that I may be made glad. And do come hither. Ever have care of thy health, remembering me." Even begging-letter writers were not unknown. An ancient representative of this class once wrote to his employer from prison. He expressed astonishment that he had been arrested, and, having protested his innocence, he made touching appeal for little luxuries which were denied to him, adding that the last consignment which had been forwarded had never reached him.

Letters were often sent by messengers who were named, but there also appears to have been some sort of postal system. Letter carriers, however, could not have performed their duties without the assistance of beasts of burden. Papyri were not used as in Egypt. Nor was ink required. Babylonian letters were shapely little bricks resembling cushions. The angular alphabetical characters, bristling with thorn-like projections, were impressed with a wedge-shaped stylus on tablets of soft clay which were afterwards carefully baked in an oven. Then the letters were placed in baked clay envelopes, sealed and addressed, or wrapped in pieces of sacking transfixed by seals. If the ancient people had a festive season which was regarded, like the European Yuletide or the Indian Durga fortnight, as an occasion suitable for the general exchange of expressions of goodwill, the Babylonian streets and highways must have been greatly congested by the postal traffic, while muscular postmen worked overtime distributing the contents of heavy and bulky letter sacks. Door to door deliveries would certainly have presented difficulties. Wood being dear, everyone could not afford doors, and some houses were entered by stairways leading to the flat and partly open roofs.


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